Against Jon Stewart: Restoring Sanity or Restoring Spectatorship?

Jon Stewart's 'Rally to Restore Sanity' could have been a lesson in elevating the progressive community's sense of civic duty. But he appears uninterested in generating enduring change; he wants a day-long party.
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Like many, I often take refuge in Jon Stewart's Daily Show, a trusted shelter from the shrapnel of our nation's daily argument. It is there that I can spend entire minutes unguarded, joining him in observing the absurdity of our dizzying political discourse. And so it was with great sadness that I witnessed Jon Stewart pitch the "Rally to Restore Sanity" in such an unreasonable manner. I delight in public demonstrations that advance progressive causes -- and so I will go -- but first allow me to explain why Stewart's attempt to frame the rally apolitically is tragic and the squandering of the greatest opportunity to reinvigorate progressive movement politics in years.

The first sign that Stewart's public announcement for the rally (which was watched by over a million people online) lacks a spine is its incoherence on the matter of whom the rally is meant to be a response to. Stewart establishes a staggeringly bizarre symmetry between the left and the right, juxtaposing images of the tea party movement against Code Pink protesters and "Truth Campaigners" (the latter believe 9/11 was an inside job). The tea party has support from most people across the country who identify as Republican, and has already demonstrated its anarchic might to the GOP, while Code Pink and Truthers are members of the fringe left who hardly wield a modicum of political capital. But Stewart's pitch also employs images of Karl Rove, various cable news pundits, and Democratic Congressmen. Are partisan pundits, tea partiers, leftist activists, members of the House, and architects of GOP politics all equally lacking in sanity? These actors are all so disparate in their nature, power, and aspirations that Stewart's attempt to dub them all as a threat to the stability of the nation is puzzling, and appears to be more a product of his fatigue with American politics than a compelling grievance.

As a comic, Stewart may think people of all ideologies deserve to be mocked, but he's an unambiguous progressive, and his refusal to confess that it is primarily the American right that tends to be wrong is strange and unfortunate. We are a democratic nation of 300 million people and many more ideas; negotiating our future will always be messy and cacophonous. There are many bipartisan or feel-good things we can do to mitigate the tumult -- media reform, filibuster reform, campaign finance reform, to name a few -- but the ferocity of our arguments is inherent to the nature of our diverse state, not a pathological disregard for being "reasonable."

Furthermore, staying dispassionate and incrementalist in the face of overwhelming injustice and crisis is not only not intrinsically virtuous -- it can be a vice. This country would be a far, far uglier place if people didn't make nuisances of themselves at critical moments in history. And is this too not one of those moments for progressives? What are the millions of us who are dissatisfied with the past two years' strides on the economy, global warming, health care, and foreign policy to do? The Democratic party needs real, organized pressure, and in some cases even wants it. Franklin D. Roosevelt famously told civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph in response to his demands, "You've convinced me. Now make me do it." No president can save us -- we are the ones we've been waiting for.

But Stewart's coarse attempt at diagnosing the nation's malaise is at its core about denigrating the value of public protest. He repeatedly scorns shouting and unruly protest as "annoying," "counterproductive," and conducted by people who don't "have shit to do." Let's consider the best example of organized shouting of the past few years: the tea party. The tea party's politics may be backwards and unpleasant, but their methods are healthy for American life. It signifies a revitalization of a civil society that has been too tame for its own good; it's about damn time that the American popular consciousness shed the notion that politics is only about consuming news and voting a handful of times a decade.

Tea partiers understand the power of ordinary citizens willing to get their hands dirty; by taking to the streets and flooding local ballots across the nation, they have established a broadly appealing lobbying apparatus that has had a tangible effect on the party that shares its agenda. It is impossible to overstate the exotic beauty of national movements that are distinct from and have real leverage against the parties intended to represent them. It is easy to mock the illiteracy and rowdy behavior of the tea party, but they have executed something every interest group dreams of day in and day out -- a bite as big as their bark. They didn't get there by "taking it down a notch"; au contraire, they got it by remembering they don't have to wear muzzles.

Glenn Beck, the cable news pundit most often associated with the tea party, has been effective in helping channel people's abject disillusionment with the political process into a productive (albeit undesirable) force across the nation. Stewart, in his description of public protest as something that truly "busy" and "reasonable" people don't do, has posited a staunchly anti-democratic thesis to millions of Americans. Stewart says come "just this once," while Beck is nursing a tangible network that has gotten things done and will continue to get things done for some time.

Ultimately, the Rally to Restore Sanity will not be defined by Stewart's framing of it. Even though Stewart has done his best to render the rally apolitical by promoting it as a beacon for "reason," it's obvious that the crowd will be mostly progressive. I concede that Stewart is embracing the irony of protesting protest through protest. But it's a real pity to think of the millions of inspired people who have seen his manifesto, website, Facebook event, and Twitter feed, and will never return to them again after October 30th. All those places could have served serve as a hub for creating a lasting network for ordinary progressive citizens tired of sitting around and yelling at screens and staring slack-jawed at the Democratic party's fear of bold policies. Tens of thousands of people are finding a way to D.C. -- I even know of some people crossing international borders; it is not just middle America that feels restless. This could have been a lesson in elevating the progressive community's sense of civic duty. But Stewart appears uninterested in generating enduring change; he wants a day-long party. Then people can go back to the things that matter -- lives of domesticity, and watching shows that make jokes about how seriously screwed up things are.

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